The urban jungle: A wildlife spotter's guide
Thursday 03 April 2008
Dolphins in London, falcons in Cardiff – it's amazing what you can find in the city
The inspiration for Ratty in The Wind in the Willows – not to mention Britain's largest vole and fastest-declining mammal – is the water vole. Its numbers have declined by 90 per cent in the past few decades, in part because of mink, an introduced species. These have escaped from mink fur farms or been deliberately let out by animal-rights activists.
Water voles are brown and much smaller than otters. Look out for them around dykes, waterways, and river banks. They are shy and can generally be seen plopping into the water along a canal or stream; holes in the banks are also a useful indicator. They are diurnal and seen mainly in day time. Visit Rainham Marshes in east London or the Wetland Centre in Barnes for particularly healthy populations. You can equally go to Wildlife Trust sites (www.wildlifetrusts.org).
With spring breeding season flapping towards us there are plenty of opportunities to spot a bird or two. If you're lucky, this might be a majestic peregrine falcon. The beautiful bird of prey can be identified by its grey upper plumage and swift velocity; they are the fastest animals on Earth, with diving speeds of up to 200mph.
While these animals were once threatened by pesticides and persecution from landowners, their national population has risen from 350 in the 1950s to 1,500 now. "Whereas previously they were targeted by misinformed landowners who believed they were targeting their animals, now attitudes have changed," says Emily Brennan, director of biodiversity conservation at the London Wildlife Trust.
Want to spot one? At any time of day, go to landmarks such as London's Tate Modern (where a breeding pair can often be seen at the top of the tower), Cardiff City Hall or Birmingham's Fort Dunlop factory.
Are you an otter spotter? The rewards are well worth the wait. These beautiful animals live largely on fish, and while they can survive for up to four years, are rare, secretive and therefore difficult to see. They will eat invertebrates, but a large part of their diet is piscine.
Otters' numbers have declined because of pesticide use. While they used to be found in many cities, a decline in their habitats has also driven them away.
Recent sightings of their prints (yes, they are that sparse) include around London's Heathrow and on the banks of the river Colne (in Hertfordshire), a tributary of the Thames. The best thing to do is walk along a river and search for paw-marks (although don't confuse these with those left by dogs).
Large and menacing-looking yet paradoxically threatened themselves, male stag beetles are obvious from their huge pincers. They are two inches long and can be seen in gardens all over the country (although the capital is a national stronghold), and you have a great chance of spotting one. Their larvae live in dead wood, so if you want to encourage them, leave this around. In summer you can see them flying in your garden and other grassy habitats, where they are noticeable particularly at dusk and late afternoon. Watch out: cats might kill them, and clearing up deadwood is an issue, too.
Hedgehog numbers are falling but, surprisingly, they are doing slightly better in urban than in rural areas. "Hogs eat slugs and snails so are good for people's gardens, but the favour has not been returned: at the end of last year, they were listed as a National Priority Species, meaning that they are declining so fast they may become extinct if we don't take action," says Brennan. Hedgehogs need a large range to find females and food; crossing concrete and roads can be a problem. And decking and patios in gardens removes hedgehog-foraging areas.
Seen one recently? There is currently a national hedgehog population survey taking place at www.hogwatch.org.uk.
Feast your eyes on common and grey seals on city rivers. These aquatic, gregarious mammals are large, grey-to-brownish-grey fish-eaters, and can be told apart from each other by the common seal's rounded head. Show no trepidation towards your new bewhiskered chums. "They are usually fairly timid animals," continues Brennan. "If someone got too close they would just swim off."
Most of these slippery water-dwellers are based around the Norfolk and Essex coast, so the ones seen venturing up city rivers are the inquisitive ones, according to the Zoological Society of London. These are generally young males.
On the Thames, they have been spied as far up as Richmond; they are often seen lolling about Westminster and Waterloo Bridges. Pay especial heed to sandbanks and rocks, where they might occasionally rest their flippers.
Keep your eyes peeled for a strongly forked tail and reddish-brown plumage if you want to pick out a red kite. These large-ish birds do predate other animals but are mainly scavengers, picking through roadkill and rubbish bins (so fear not for your cat's safety).
In the 1880s, they were persecuted almost to extinction, but nowadays can be seen progressively moving into the edges of London from the West after some successful repopulation along the M4. "When a pair raise their young, the young leave and look for new nesting territories, generally where there is lots of food available," explains Brennan. "And this seems to be happening toward some urban areas."
For a feathery eyeful of kite, go to rubbish dumps and gardens; they have also been sighted in Hackney, east London. "It's common to see up to 50 in the sky in places. They are not shy and will come down and take food metres away from people," concludes Brennan.
Dolphins and porpoises
Dolphins are threatened in the UK and there has been a decline in their numbers since the 1940s. Nevertheless, they can often be seen around the times of changing tides on the Thames, especially in April and May, even in very urban areas such as the Isle of Dogs in London.
Harbour porpoises are the most widely seen porpoises in Britain. The Zoological Society of London reports sightings in Gravesend and even Greenwich. They grow up to 1.8 metres long, around the size of a seal.
At dusk, small pipistrelle bats are often mistaken for birds. Look again – these mammals have more erratic flight patterns than your average tweeter.
These night-lovers are now under threat in Britain due to the destruction of their natural habitat – hedgerows and woodland – though many have adapted by relying on buildings as roosting sites. They will squeeze under roof tiles, sheds and garages to make a home. It is legal requirement that should you uncover a bat roost in your home, you must inform your local authority; consider them if you are planning any renovations.
Look out for the critters at dusk or dawn scouting for insects around urban hedgerows or rivers.
* Local urban parks are a good bet; for bats, visit at dusk in the warmer months, or attend an organised bat walk. For any twitcher, a pair of binoculars are a must, and bat detectors – which pick up on ultrasonic cries – can be purchased over the internet. Contact the Bat Conservation Trust for more details ( www.bats.org.uk).
* Know your paw-prints? If not, books exist to smooth the identification process. The Field Studies Guide series are cheap, cheerful (and conveniently laminated) aides to topics such as mammal paw-prints, or butterfly patterns.
* Estuaries and urban rivers are increasingly showing evidence of life: keep your eyes open, especially when the tide is low. Again, take a pair of bins and don't write anything off. According to the Zoological Society of London, porpoises have been seen in Gravesend and Greenwich; and dolphins all around the Isle of Dogs.
* For a comprehensive guide to any of the animals you are likely to see in London and beyond, as well as further information on those threatened, see www.wildlondon.org.uk.
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